Perceiving emotions in Autism Spectrum Disorders: cortical and peripheral effects during intra- and inter-species social interactions

Maria Elide Vanutelli, Valeria Milone, Michela Balconi

Research output: Contribution to journalConference articlepeer-review


Convergent evidence showed that children with Autistic Spectrum Disorders (ASD) have often to deal with some social deficits and their consequences, such as rejection, social anxiety, and negative peer interactions. Thus, the need to develop alternative strategies to improve social communication has recently emerged and become an important goal. One recent possibility consists in the introduction of therapies based on human-animal interactions: it has been largely demonstrated, in fact, that animals can improve social exchange among humans. This effect could be of primary relevance for individuals with disabilities, to encourage a positive experience and reinforce socio-emotional development. Nonetheless, it’s still largely unknown what are the psychological and neural mechanisms that can mediate the emotional and empathic processes related to such effects. To explore cognitive and affective components related to these research questions, a multi-method approach with electroencephalographic (EEG) and autonomic activity recording was applied to explore central and peripheral responsivity of ASD children during an emotional task. It has been proven, in fact, that they typically show impaired autonomic responsivity to social cues and anomalies in electrocortical patterns during emotional tasks. A small pilot group made up of 8 children with ASD (M age = 8.5, SD = 1.9) was shown 144 affective pictures (positive vs. negative vs. neutral) depicting both Human-Human (HH) and Human-Animal (HA) interactions. For what concerns EEG data, a decreased activity in alpha power was found with respect to HH stimuli (increased cortical activity). Similar results in ASD have been interpreted as the recourse to more voluntary-driven mechanisms to process and interpret affective stimuli (higher/ controlled mental functions), instead of recruiting phylogenetically ancient structures responsible for the execution of automatic brain functions. For what concerns autonomic activity, cardiovascular indices (both Blood Volume Pulse, BVP, and Heart Rate, HR) showed increased activity for positive stimuli. Finally, SCL showed increased responses for negative HA stimuli, which probably triggered significant automatic orienting/defensive responses. Such results will be compared to those obtained by a matched control group. The present work provided significant neuroscientific evidence on emotion perception in ASD to different social agents, with important highlights for future therapeutic support and interventions.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)153-154
Number of pages2
JournalNeuropsychological Trends
Publication statusPublished - 2016
EventXXIV Congresso Nazionale della Società Italiana di Psicofisiologia - SIPF - Milano
Duration: 27 Oct 201629 Oct 2016


  • Animal
  • Autism
  • EEG, Autonomic indices
  • Empathy
  • Inter-species
  • Social interaction


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